On November 9th, approximately half of us will be elated. Approximately half of us will be devastated. On November 8th, the most patriotic thing you can do, other than vote, is to say “Thanks for being here” to the social redemption that was in front of you the whole time: the poll worker.
Many of us believe that if our chosen Presidential candidate loses on Tuesday, the American values we hold most dear will have been lost to the ages. The stakes feel that high. Anxiety has pervaded our daily lives; there is talk of violence on or after Election Day—violence. Not in a “third-world” plutocracy—right here. In the United States.
One way we can calm ourselves is to remember that American values—for all of us—will be embedded in the people helping us that day. The ones checking us in, handing us our ballots, explaining how the voting machines operate, giving us the “I Voted” stickers we love so much. When I was an elections administrator, I assigned dozens of these folks to work our precincts. They will wake up at 4 a.m. or earlier. They will stay in that gymnasium or church or fire station all day long. In Virginia, the polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.—but poll workers are there long before and after those times, setting up in the morning, tallying results at night. They come from every possible background. Many are volunteers. The ones who are paid earn a paltry amount. It is guaranteed, even in a “normal” election, that at least one voter will yell at them because he or she is in the wrong place, or doesn’t have the proper form of i.d. They will tolerate this, do everything they can to diffuse it, and go back to work, serving the endless line—and in a Presidential year, it is endless—of voters there to exercise their democratic rights. They will be exhausted. Lawyers and observers from the political parties will be looking over their shoulders with every breath they take. Every move they make. They did not draw the district lines. They will have no control whatsoever—none—over the laws and policies that require them to say “no” to an angry voter. The legislators who made those policies are not working the check-in table. But our friends and neighbors are.
And in this, we can take solace. They do it all because they feel a sense of civic duty. They want to serve their communities. They could be out, sending nasty tweets about the opposing candidates, or at home, or at work—many of them are using a vacation day to be there. But instead, they choose to serve. Not an interest group, not a party—you. Us. The voters. Their friends, their neighbors, their fellow Americans.
I don’t believe this is a notion of privilege or naïveté, as some would suggest. I am not blind to the potentially grave consequences of this election. My love of individual civic engagement is, of course, reductive. But when the entire waiting world is aware of every ugly thing that has happened in this election cycle, I believe we benefit from looking at the small, good things as well. Regular people helping regular people. And that won’t end when the curtain comes down on this season of political theater. It will continue at food banks and churches and libraries, hospitals and homeless shelters and schools.
So, when you go to your polling place, look into the eyes of the person checking you in to vote, and say, “Thank you.” They will be deeply grateful. And thus, regardless of the results, the republic will stand, and we, the people, will do what we have always done: find our country in each other.